Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughs on Side by Side and film vs. digital

I watched Side by Side with very mixed feelings - not because the movie falls short, but because it captures a moment in time better than any documentary about movies that I have seen.

Side by Side showcases the debate between the merits of digital filmmaking versus analog filmmaking. More and more these days, films are neither made nor shown via actual film.

While I'm not sure that digital cameras have outpaced film cameras in moviemaking, digital is surely catching up. Three movies made predominantly or entirely with digital cameras, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar and Hugo, have won cinematography Oscars. And digital projection has clearly taken over the movie theater too. Almost every theater in the Dayton area shows movies via digital projectors.

Side by Side allows some of our most prominent moviemakers to extol the virtues or decry the drawbacks of digital filmmaking. George Lucas and James Cameron are nothing less than evangelists for all things digital. Converts include such directors as David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike)  and Danny Boyle (Slumdog).

Meanwhile, firmly on the pro-film side are Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) and his DP Wally Pfister, who insist that film offers the superior picture. Nolan went so far as to point out in the credits of The Dark Knight Rises, that it was "shot, edited and finished on film."

While Side by Side gives good weight to the analog angle, it's worth noting that there aren't more pro-film advocates like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, who shot his latest movie, The Master, in 70 millimeter. That's a format very few theaters can even project anymore.

That's telling. And I don't think it's because all these directors believe film is better looking than digital. For many of them, it's more convenient. I noticed that most people on the pro-digital side weren't talking about the quality of the image. They were talking about technological innovations. Boyle talks about being able to get certain kinds of shots with small digital cameras. Soderbergh talks about he he didn't have to lug heavy cameras around mountains when shooting Che. Fincher loves not having to wait for dailies to see how his movie looks. And really, who's more of a visual fetishist than David Fincher?

Here's where my own viewpoint comes creeping in, and it surprises me. I love my gadgets. I love digital. Rather than carry bagloads of CDs around, I have my iPod touch. Instead of heavy books I have a light Kindle. And digital projection is fantastic. No more beat-up prints or film melting. Mo more witless teenagers looking at me funny when I tell them they've got the wrong lens on the projector.

And yet, I still find myself drawn to real film. Here's a major case in point: The Artist, my favorite film of last year. Each time I saw it, it was digitally projected. It looked beautiful, but at the same time, it felt ... "wrong," considering it evoked Hollywood's golden age. I got a similar feeling going to the classic film series in Dayton and Columbus - there was a certain comfort in knowing I was watching film of the old stuff.

So leave it to Martin Scorsese, my favorite director, to reflect my own split-down-the-middle feelings. Scorsese used digital beautifully in Hugo and yet expresses a reticence to leave film behind.

And I don't think it will be left behind - not entirely, anyway. There is absolutely no doubt digital will  dominate. But remember how in the 80s people went on and on about CDs and how vinyl would go away? Well, vinyl did go away for awhile, but these days it's making a comeback as kind of a premium audio format. I think something similar may happen with film - it will become something of a "boutique" item - abandoned by many but cherished by few. (The documentary makes a very good point that in the end, film is still the most reliable way to store films.)

Whatever medium is chosen, as Scorsese himself says, "The issue is, it's different. How is it different and how do you use it to tell a story? It's up to the filmmaker."

Side by Side is available, fittingly enough, in video on demand

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